Recall The Office or The Mindy Project, and more recently, Never Have I Ever or The Sex Lives of College Girls. Their common denominator, multi-hyphenate Mindy Kaling, has created a handful of South Asian characters for these shows, some of whom she played herself. These female characters are often outspoken, “sex-obsessed,” self-deprecating, and occasionally lack interest in or knowledge of their cultural roots. And if Twitter and TikTok have anything to say recently, these onscreen figures are not the representation they asked for.
In the days following the release of HBO Max and Kaling’s Scooby Doo spin-off Velma, a flood of criticism pointed to Kaling’s body of work, South Asian characters, and ideals of representation. People posted clips from Velma at first, hitting back at the show’s jokes written about Velma Dinkley’s body hair and Indian desserts. One TikTokker said, “South Asian girls deserve better.” Another said, “Velma feels like a setback in so many ways.” Many of the series’ one-liners have been touted as tired portrayals of what it means to be South Asian on Western television.
Attention has since turned to Kaling’s previous work. Characters like Devi Vishwakumar (Never Have I Ever) and Bela Malhotra (The Sex Lives of College Girls) are now being critiqued in hindsight. Viewers are honing in on dialogue and scenes in which girls — young, Brown, immigrant daughters — either question their physical appearances or resent their backgrounds.
Credit: HBO Max
Without question, Kaling’s characters share noticeable traits that vary but don’t stray far from being insecure and unsure of oneself. They waver, attempting to balance their parents expectations, their view of themselves, and their need for validation. They struggle to place themselves in the predominantly white settings they find themselves in. Kaling’s comedy, in this regard, is distinctive. Throughout, Indian culture and traditions are peppered within these works as punchlines and obstacles. It isn’t hard to see why such narratives are drawing chagrin from South Asian viewers, many of whom are tired of seeing such tropes rehashed for millions to watch.
And yet, this backlash appears to be targeting a single South Asian writer, one who has become prominent in the wider landscape of TV production and reached tangible success with her work.
Critiques of Kaling’s characters allude to a dearth of characters of color and writers of color behind them, as some other outlets have pointed out. Buzzfeed called her “peerless”; IndieWire writes that “there’s a clear demand for numerous, nuanced South Asian characters”. Kaling is a product of a time when she was one of few, likely being asked to draw caricatures, and oftentimes writing for the white gaze. Kaling has undeniably increased frequency and prominence of South Asian women on TV. Now, Kaling’s characters, like her, are grappling with being on-screen, where they have not existed historically as heroines in the spotlight. It is this ingrained issue, perhaps even this pressure, that is leading to heightened scrutiny.
The conversation also stops short of taking a holistic view at some of the larger storylines within Kaling’s work. For instance, Never Have I Ever features characters like Devi’s mother Nalini and her cousin Kamala, who each offer a different take on what it looks like to be a Brown woman. One is a single mother handling her teenage daughter, her dermatology practice, and her personal life in the wake of her husband’s death. The other left her family to pursue her dream in America, trying to make a mark in a male-dominated space, while also rejecting an arranged marriage and staying with the man she really loves. Strength and conviction is embedded in the bones of these characters, neither of whom shy away from being who they are.
In contrast, Devi, who is palpably insecure of herself and her culture, may not wholly represent the modern Indian girl growing up in America today. But she is a full-formed, multifaceted character, evolving as seasons progress. The Mindy Project’s titular character posits a similar dilemma: Mindy can be overwhelmingly self-obsessed, with little information about anything to do with her ethnicity and faith. This is frustrating to watch unfold. Still, that truth can exist while also noting that Mindy handles motherhood, juggles two careers, maintains close friendships, and is unapologetically herself. Bela, too, from The Sex Lives of College Girls, holds insecurities and clichés (her parents wanting her to be a doctor being one of them). But she is empowered in her own right, even more so in the sophomore season of Kaling’s series.
This is the Kaling stamp, not an overarching painting of today’s Brown girl.
It’s true. The chaos and messiness of her Brown girl character has been done several times now, but these figures should be observed as just that: portrayals of a specific, chaotic, Kaling-esque girl. This is the Kaling stamp, not an overarching painting of today’s Brown girl.
Consider The New Yorker’s praise of Mo, in Mo Amer’s eponymous Netflix show: “It is genuinely refreshing to see a protagonist who resists sympathy or identification — a big, loud man onscreen who yells about everything.” The piece, which reflects on immigrant representation and Palestinian identity on American television, applauds Amer for creating a truly flawed, oftentimes “irrational” character. Kaling’s counterparts exist in vastly different worlds than that of Mo, but happen to share such traits and the immigrant trope. Their faults, however, are not currently commended; their anger is not being seen as a symptom of a larger problem.
The criticisms of the characters at hand are valid, but so is the possibility that many can also be complex, funny, and candid. This two-fold reality of Kaling’s universe is being eclipsed, likely due to age-old comedic tropes and instances in which viewers feel that the younger, more prominent characters are mocking themselves and their culture. While discrimination and internalized racism are a frequent reality, South Asian women and Kaling’s viewers are now asking for more, for better.
This request is not unreasonable.
Yet, the pointed and visceral hatred of Kaling online is not exactly doing the necessarily work, and reflection, either. The Brown girl may be in need of evolution on-screen, beyond what has so far been offered. This isn’t necessarily Kaling’s job, and her characters do not fit in a vacuum. South Asian women deserve variation and depth, but Kaling’s characters can also stand as they are, comprising an important fragment of the greater picture.